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2014 – Reviews

The Future is Female,

but will there be any recordings?

plus Southern African jazz in the 20 years since apartheid

Track of the Month:-  “To Those We Love: In Honour Of Our 20 Years Of Democracy” from the album “Alive” by Unathi (South Africa)

It is oft said that African music went through a 15 to 20-year Golden age after independence. The picture in South Africa is muddied by the fact that white rule/apartheid  went on until 1994.What followed for South African jazz was a blossoming of the music on a previously unimaginable scale. For those viewing the country from afar  the picture was further distorted by the prominence and celebrity of a handful of superb jazz musicians who were exiled in the west. The exiles went from strength to strength after 1994 largely because they were feeding off the glories of the new developments in jazz back home but in doing so largely obscured the rest of us from seeing what was really happening. From the vantage point of South Africa however, post apartheid jazz was simply too dazzling to be ignored. Anyone still doubting that the best African jazz of the last 20 years comes from Southern Africa needs to spend a couple of afternoons with the magnificent compilation “20 Years Sheer African Jazz.” Johannesburg’s Sheer Sound record label, though not as active as it used to be, was by far the most prolific jazz label of the period which is not to say that there weren’t  major acts they didn’t record. . Gloria Bosman aside,  one could criticise their roster of artists as being distinctly male and their output was dominated by musicians that played in and around Johannesburg so their catalogue is relatively weak, in Cape jazz. Nevertheless, given that the label was founded in 1994 and has such a large back catalogue. it was a good idea to put together a compilation of their jazz recordings to mark the label’s and post apartheid South Africa’s 20th anniversary: a good idea brilliantly executed because this mammoth 197 minute set gives a compelling snapshot of the period’s jazz. Its 37 tracks constitute an irrefutable argument: there is no label on the planet with a better back catalogue of jazz recordings from Africa (and, some might add,  therefore the world) from the last 20 years. If any of the South African jazz musicians of the 1960's, 70's and 80's who fought apartheid so bravely heard “20 Years Sheer African Jazz,” they would have thought they had reached Paradise. This music is exactly what they fought for and is the fruit of the struggle in which they participated. There’s a strand of unflinching, hard won hope that runs deep through this music.. Anyone unfamiliar with the jazz of post apartheid South Africa is likely to be overwhelmed when hearing this music for the first time. Could this release be contemporary South Africa’s Buena Vista Social Club moment?  –the tipping point at which the world’s music lovers finally wake up to the abundant riches of post apartheid Southern Africa’s jazz? Probably not, but it deserves to be widely heard and it is difficult to imagine how anyone listening to it can fail to be deeply moved.

What is remarkable about South African jazz since 1994 is that this stunning music was made in the toughest conditions imaginable.  While life expectancy in the region has started to rise in recent years, largely due to the introduction of generic drugs to treat HIV, it remains frighteningly low, especially for black South Africans whose lives are far shorter than their white compatriots. The toll on jazz musicians speaks for itself. Of the musicians featured on the compilation, those no longer with us include:

Gito Baloi

Hotep Idris Galeta

Lulu Gontsana

Sipho Gumede

Moses Khumalo

Prince Kupi

Allen Kwela

Winston Mankunku Ngozi

Moses Taiwa Molelekwa

Bheki Mseleku

Zim Ngqawana

Shaluza Max


All these human beings were national treasures.  Hardly any died of old age and the loss of younger musicians to murder, suicide, car accidents, etc, simply heartbreaking. Musicians of the post apartheid era, especially younger ones, have faced socio-economic circumstances that weren’t simply challenging, they were life-threatening. As a direct result, there is grit in this music just as there was in former times in the blues of the deep South. No doubt, this is in part why it has such power to uplift us and plumb the depths of the soul. In short,  “20 Years Sheer African Jazz” presents a snap shot of the region’s music with the capacity not merely to uplift but to change the way we think.

And what is the situation like now? As good a starting point as any is “Felix,” a beautifully observed and thought-provoking family orientated movie about a little South African boy who develops an interest in jazz.. The huge disparity between conspicuous wealth and grinding poverty that the film portrays may shock those unfamiliar with contemporary South Africa but illustrates graphically that economic apartheid is still very much intact. The same jazz musicians of the 60's, 70's and 80's who would take delight in “20 Years Sheer African Jazz.” would find it sickening to see the disparities between rich and poor, black and white that have survived the end of apartheid. Nevertheless, the film’s soundtrack featuring the likes of Bokani Dyer and Lwanda Gogwana is beautiful and it is heartening to see that jazz is still regarded as a vehicle for change - an art form capable of breaking down barriers. Ultimately it’s an  uplifting film that will fascinate those interested in South Africa and her jazz.

Another good starting point is Unathis reworking of her cover version of Miriam Makeba’s “Nongqongqo (To Those We Love)” originally from the 1966 album “An Evening With Belafonte/ Makeba.” Unathi transforms this beautiful composition to invoke the ancestral spirit of the late Nelson Mandela and pleads with the father of her nation to guide today’s South Africa about how to “turn things around.”.

Looking further afield, It is striking how many of the year’s best recordings are by women. Throughout this decade, this site’s albums of the year have been by established male stars nearing the ends of their careers or  have been albums that celebrate the continent’s musical heritage, This year is no exception with the nod going to Koffi Olomide’s stunning tribute to Franco, the greatest of all Africa’s jazz icons but the future lies with artists like Thandi Ntuli, this sites 2014 Newcomer of the Year and the wonderful Carmen Souza, who’s “Live at Lagny Jazz Festival” is the site’s West African release of the year and to the likes of Claudia Bakisa, Angelique Kidjo, Siya Makuzeni, Tutu Puoane and  Feya Tess all of whom have put out magnificent releases in the course of the year. The demographics of African jazz in 2014 mean that the future is almost undoubtedly going to be female.

Over all African Jazz in the year has seen a continued rise in the number of annual releases – as has happened in every year of the decade so far. Within this encouraging upward trend there are however some worrying developments. For example while Ethio jazz and Afrobeat are in rude health and growing as global phenomena, there is a dearth of new recordings from East and, to a lesser extent, West Africa. This isn’t because there is no jazz in these regions. On the contrary, Kenya’s contemporary jazz scene, for example, boasts the best jazz musicians that nation has ever produced in the form of Joseph Hellon and Aaron Rimbui and the BBC World Service recently reported that there is an unprecedented boom in live jazz in Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa. The problem is that this music isn’t being recorded and released commercially to the wider world. It’s difficult to ascertain exactly why this is so but it is likely that industrial scale music piracy on the Internet deters artists from recording: hey simply can’t make any money out of it. Central Africa seems relatively immune to the problem so far, perhaps because the Internet isn’t yet as well developed in that part of Africa yet but there are worrying signs that the system of copyright is beginning to unravel in Southern Africa with sites like Electric Jive starting to pose an existential threat to the reissue end of the music  industry. Chillingly one of that site’s leading lights stated this year that he regards remuneration of musicians for recordings as “twentieth century.”  Let’s hope he’s wrong and let all of us silently resolve to pay for our music at every opportunity and shun every means of not doing so. Such an approach is vital not only to the future of the music but to lift musicians and their families out of the deeply troubling socio-economic situation that has been such a factor in the horrific death rate that has afflicted the mother continent’s jazz musicians for far too long.

December 2014

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Koffi Olomide celebrates OK Jazz genius Franco: a review of the DVD “Koffi Chante Luambo - Live Concert”

Track of the Month:- “Liberté” from “Koffi Chante Luambo - Live Concert” by Koffi Olomide (DVD, DR Congo)

The vast legacy of Congolese singer, composer, guitarist and bandleader extraordinaire Luambo Makiadi Franco and his magnificent big band T.P.OK Jazz, lies at the v heart of jazz from sub-Saharan Africa. Not for nothing is he so widely remembered by the title granted by his country’s musicians union: Le Grand Maître - The Great Master.

In the 25 years since Franco’s death, the dominance of Congolese music in sub-Saharan Africa has subsided, and it is sometimes forgotten outside the continent that Franco was by far and away the biggest figure, not only in jazz, but in all music across the bulk of the continent throughout the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s. Even when the popularity of Congolese jazz declined after his demise in 1989, Congolese pop music continued to dominate for a further decade or so, during which the younger singer, composer and bandleader, Koffi Olomide, established himself as the continent’s leading star. To this day Koffi remains a huge figure and is almost certainly the best known living musician in Africa.

Regardless of his undoubted talent, Olomide is not however a jazz musician and jazz lovers may raise their eyebrows at finding a review of his latest offering on this site. They may well also find aspects of his latest DVD disconcerting. Koffi is banked on either side by an array of gyrating scantily clad dancing queens. There are machines on stage belching out fire, smoke and bubbles. The rough hewn, utterly Congolese and gloriously full throated  seven piece horn section is frequently edited out of the mix or drowned out by clumsily overdubbed synthesiser. Koffi boastfully calls himself “Qudra Kora Man” at frequent intervals, referring to the fact that he is a four time recipient of the continent’s most prestigious Kora music award. The sound engineering may frustrate too. Whilst reasonably clear for the most part, it drops out almost entirely at one point and there is occasional buzzing from the PA. The editing is abrupt at times and on the review copy vision and sound grind to a complete halt for several minutes towards the end of track seven necessitating judicious use of the skip to next track button. Jazz lovers may not be alone in finding the latter somewhat irritating.

Nonetheless it those who persevere with “Koffi Chante Luambo - Live Concert” will be richly rewarded. It will gradually dawn on those who do that Koffi’s celebration of Franco’s epoch defining music is one of the most resonant, significant jazz releases from Africa of recent times. While Koffi may not be a jazz musician, his chosen arranger/ guitarist for this ambitious project most certainly is. “Maestro” Maika Munan is an ex-member of Tabu Ley Rochereau's Afrisa and became a key associate in his later years working on such albums as “Exil-Ley” and his final masterpiece “Tempelo.” Rochereau, an alumnus of Joseph Kabasele’s seminal African Jazz, was Franco’s arch rival, and in his heyday easily Africa’s second-biggest star after Franco. More importantly, for Koffi’s present purposes Munan, widely regarded as the best arranger in Central Africa, has kept his finger firmly on the pulse of contemporary Congolese music In particular, he has worked closely with and helped develop the career of Fally Ipupa, the most successful of the younger Congolese stars, since he left Koffi’s band to go solo. In summary, Munan is little short of a Central African Quincy Jones and an ideal partner with whom to reinterpret music of such exceptional power and quality as Franco’s.

Wisely the approach Koffi and Munan adopt for “Chante Luambo” is not nostalgic or revivalist, nor does it need to be because Franco is regarded as a genius across vast swathes of the continent where his work is immortal regardless of anything Koffi or Munan may or may not do. Nor have Koffi and Munan made any attempt to surpass or supplant the original OK Jazz recordings which are widely held to be incomparable masterpieces. Rather, they have done the one sensible, worthwhile thing one can do with Franco's material. With the help of his gifted arranger Koffi has reworked the songs to make them more accessible it to his own audience. It is as though he is saying to his fans "if you think I'm good just listen to the greatest: Franco."

This approach is the equivalent of Michael Jackson doing a live album of Louis Armstrong cover versions in partnership with a great contemporary arranger who has an unimpeachable pedigree in jazz; not primarily in  hope of winning over jazz fans but with the intention of turning Jackson aficionados on to Armstrong.

The good news is that it has worked. Koffi’s consummate artistry as a singer, his showmanship and infectious enthusiasm combined with Munan’s masterly arrangements make “Koffi Chante Luambo” a winner. Koffi has never looked more relaxed or confident, nor has he sounded better or looked like he is enjoying himself more; as well he might, because  the material he is singing is simply the best there is. Munan’s arrangements sound deceptively loose, almost casual but he has paid minute attention to reworking the rhythm section and the interlocking of the three guitars to give the tunes a contemporary feel. The fact that guitar solos  - a staple of Congolese music throughout. era the songs were written -are firmly out of fashion in todays Central Africa is a actually a  boon because Franco’s playing remains matchless and it makes much more sense to do the songs without solos which is not to say that the standard of guitar playing on this release is of the very highest order. The net result is that, after listening a few times, many listeners will find themselves in a state of delerium, unable to resist the temptation to rise to their feet and dance. To this end, the best technical feature of the DVD is that no matter what machine one uses, it splays in a loop automatically continuing from the beginning every time one reaches the end, hastening newcomers’ inevitable addiction to Franco’s everlasting compositions and supplying a steady flow of nourishment to the long converted.

The material listed on the DVD, is all composed by Franco, except for “Aliya” which is  Koffi’s own from the “Monde Arabe” album. The half dozen or so tracks represent a minuscule proportion of Franco & OK Jazz’s mammoth back catalogue of around 1,500 songs an astonishing number of which are known and loved by a considerable portion of the population  across an are more than double the size of the United States. Thankfully, both Koffi’s previous tributes to Congolese jazz giants (“Chante Tabu Ley” and “Chante Lutumba”) stretched to two volumes, so there is reason to hope  that there will be more “Chante Luambo” to come. Given Franco’s Shakespeare like status, one could argue that nothing less than a reinterpretation of the complete works can do him justice, in which case we would have umpteen volumes to look forward to.

For the time being, however, readers are strongly urged d to feast themselves on the current offering, which is thus far only available as a DVD. If the previous “Ley” and “Ltumba” releases are anything to go by, there may well be CD and download versions on the market before long but even so, the DVD version will be the one to go for, because the footage has a real sense of occasion that provides a window to Central African music in situ; the dancing by audience and performers alike adds greatly to one’s understanding of the music and there are lovely glimpses of just how much Fraco means to people such as a dignitary of some sort, giving an emphatic thumbs up at the start of the final number. Plus, of course, Koffi himself in all his pomp has extraordinary stage presence and genuine magnetism. On this release especially, he is eminently watchable.

There are four songs from the 70’s of which two, “Azda” and “Liberté,” were originally sung by Franco. “Alimatou” originally sung mainly by Sam Mangwana is served up complete with a rare and surprisingly compelling  appearance by Koffi on guitar - further evidence of his devotion to and meticulous preparation for the concert. “Loboko” is beautifully rearranged as a duet with chanteuse Cindy, while “Mario,” Franco’s best known piece, and perhaps therefore an inevitable inclusion, originally sung in duet with Madilu System is reinterpreted as a solo Koffi piece. The DVD’s opener “Makambo Ezali Minene” is a version of “Makambo Ezali Bourreau” which like “Mario”  dates from the 80’s and was originally sung mainly by Madilu but is now movingly reworked as an evocation of and memorial to Franco, whose name Koffi sings repeatedly with exquisite timing and great depth of feeling. “Motemema Na Nga Epai Ya Cherie” which is not listed on the cover is unknown to the reviewer but sounds as though it may be an earlier composition.

Like him or not, Koffi has done Franco proud and this release will be relished by large numbers of older  music lovers not merely in Kinshasa and Brazzaville but from Lagos to Lilongwe and Dar to Dakar; in all of which Franco’s long standing devotees will dance delightedly in ululating unison with Koffi’s fans together, in all probability, with younger members of their families too. If so, Koffi has done Africa’s cultural heritage very great service that may even merit yet another Kora award. Either way, “Koffi Chante Luambo” is likely to be remembered as a highlight of his glittering career and as a timely, telling reminder to us all of the timeless, towering talent that was Franco, the mother continent’s all time favourite musician.

November 2014

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Three months on a camel

Tracks of the Month:-



“Rawmaterializm” from the album “Brasskap Sessions Vol .2” by McCoy Mrubata (South Africa)


“419 Afrobeat.com” by Funsho Ogundipe feat Tony Allen, from the five track vinyl LP compilation album “Asoju Oba Ayetoro - Directions in Music“ by Funsho Ogundipe; also released as “419 Afrobeat” on a three track  digital download EP,  (Nigeria)


“Africa Mokili Marimba” by African Jazz featured on the vinyl LP compilation double album  “Souvenirs From The Congo,” by Grand Kalle & L'African Jazz (DR Congo)

This column’s three month absence is nothing compared to the six  years we’ve awaited McCoy Mrubata’s “Brasskap Sessions Vol .2.” Its been worth it: For starters, the standard of musicianship on the album is absolutely first rate, featuring established stars such as the Malawian  Erik Paliani and his revered Zimbabwean peer Louis Mhlanga on guitars; trumpeter Feya Faku; trombonist Jabu Magubane; double bassist Herbie Tsoaeli ; drummer Ayanda Sikade; percussionist Tlale Makhene (from Swaziland); keyboardist and long-term Mrubata associate Paul Hanmer ad Soul Brothers organist “Black Moses” Ngema (the best in Africa). Then there are several exciting newcomers, including keyboardist Luyanda Madope , who produces the album and guitarist Billy Monama who plays a scintillating Themba Mokoena/ Philip Tabane tinged solo on the outstanding opening track  “Rawmaterializm” (say it… ). The biggest attraction of all however is Mrubata himself who, now that fellow South African saxophonist Barney Rachebane and the seminal Ethiopian Getatchew Mekuria seem to have more or less retired, is undoubtedly one of the three or four greatest saxophonists active in Africa. Now in his 50's, his playing has evolved and matured to the point where every note counts. His skills as composer, arranger and leader have blossomed too, making “Brasskap Sessions Vol .2”, one of 2014’s best African jazz releases. Pleasingly, it is also more dance orientated than anything he’s done before. Mrubata seems to have reflected on and learned a great deal from his recent not wholly successful collaboration with “Black Moses” Ngema. The result is not a mbaqanga album or even an album with a strong mbaqanga flavour but rather something more profound: in the course of digesting what he acknowledges was the challenging experience of collaborating with the Soul Brothers’ organ master, Mrubata seems to have absorbed something of his timing and this is reflected both in his sax playing and composing. In this Mrubata emulates the greatest jazz musicians: he has created something new and original out of Ngema’s influence rather than something merely derivative. He has also stirred elements of jive and afrobeat into the musical cooking pot and the participation of top Malawian and Zimbabwean guitarists, both influenced by and steeped in Congolese guitar playing, adds spice to the mix. His choice of a clearly gifted young producer rounds off a delicious offering.

But why have had to wait so long for this? The reason, seemingly, from the title of  “Rawmaterializm,” the track that sets the tone for the album,  and from comments recounted to Gwen Ansell, in a recent interview is economic:

“It took me years to assemble enough resources to feature those big line-ups on albums. Whenever I had enough cash, I’d call people. But if I can afford a fat line-up, why not? And on this album, I’m still working on covering all the costs,” he concedes ruefully. Money wasn’t the only issue. Brasskap Volume Two is also self-produced and self-distributed – “and I’m still seeing ways I could do it better and learning for next time. But now I am truly in awe of musicians like [bassist] Concord [Nkabinde] who do this themselves for all their albums.”

(from an interview with McCoy Mrubata by Gwen Ansell at


If making an album is this tough for someone of McCoy Mrubata’s stature; no wonder new jazz recordings from South Africa have seemed relatively few and far between of late. This may also explain why so many of the releases that do see the day feel unadventurous: the market appears to have become more risk averse than it was and therefore more musically conservative.

Where did the radicalism go?  McCoy refers to Fela Kuti as a continuing inspiration and a new documentary “Finding Fela” due for release on DVD shortly is a vivid reminder of  why. A combination of live footage (of which there is relatively little in existence thanks to the brutality of the  Nigerian authorities), archive interviews and reminiscence of people who knew him form the backbone of the film and the gaps in the story are cunningly circumvented by interweaving footage from and about the musical “Fela.” The result is a fast paced; warts and all but torching, humane portrayal hat has movie goers bursting into applause. Director, Alex Gibney, is to be congratulated on what will surely come to be regarded as the definitive documentary on the central figure in afrobeat. There’s even a magnificent sax solo by Fela’s elder son Femi showing that if he put his back into it he could be as great a player as Mrubata. Why Femi plays this well so rarely is a mystery.

One musician who certainly keep the flame of afrobeat alive is master drummer Tony Allen, who has been going through a purple patch, which started with 2012’s Rocket  Juice & the Moon project; continued in 2013 with his Afrobeat Makers “Tony Allen Rhythms Revisited” and happily continues in 2014, with several strong new recordings. Most beautiful of all, to these ears, is “419 Afrobeat.com”  an instrumental co-composed and performed with top flight Nigerian keyboard player Funsho Ogundipe. Not only does Allen play a ravishing instrumental break, that is almost amounts to one of the solos he is famously said never to play, but also the interplay between him and Ogundipe is sublime in its subtlety. “419” is of course Naija shorthand for the country’s matchless global Internet fraud: this and the fact that the bassist Emmanuel Ofori on the track also hails from West Africa (Ghana) suggest a certain disillusionment with the contemporary global afrobeat scene. The point is well made, because the fact of the matter is that none of the umpteen trendy globalised afrobeat acts scattered round the planet come remotely near playing this well as Allen and Ogundipe on“419 Afrobeat.com”. On the other hand, the participation of Berlin-based African-American sax maestro Ben Abarbanel-Wolff as the fourth member of the quartet on the track is a tacit acknowledgement that non-West Africans can sometimes have a legitimate role to play in the genre too. Allen doesn’t feature on the rest of Funsho Ogundipe’s new digital EP (“Afrobeat Chronicles, Vol. 4: Esoterica Galactica” by Ayetoro) nor is he on the 12 inch vinyl release that incorporates much of his 2012 EP “Asoju Oba” too, but all these recordings feature  afrobeat keyboard playing of the highest order. Check out, for example, the track “Baba don go” featuring trumpeter Byron Wallen, one of a number of black British musicians comfortable playing several types of African jazz, having worked with Moses Taiwa Molelekwa, Mulatu Astatke and a number of West African acts.

Allen also plays at his heart out on the album “African Woman” by Guinean singer Sia Tolno on which he is producer and co-composer, as well as drummer. He responds to her political lyrics about feminism and politics in Africa with his most fiery playing in years - suggesting again, perhaps that it is working with West African musicians that excites him most. His playing on the new solo album “Film of Life” is equally good but quite different - reflective and thoughtful. The album’s title implies that it could be regarded as a kind of soundtrack to his recent and highly recommended autobiography . Interestingly, on the song “Boat Journey” he issues a plea to fellow Africans not to migrate out of the mother continent and on the shimmering, gorgeous lament “Go Back” singer/co-composer Damon Albarn seems to bemoan how difficult life would be as creative musician were Allen to return to Nigeria. Whether this theme in Allen’s work merely reflects a yearning for home or constitutes a serious intention to repatriate remains to be seen, but does appear to betoken a certain disillusionment with the West and the “world music” industry in particular that to some extent mirrors the problems Mrubata recounts about making his album.

The big African cultural event of the last three months in London however, whence this column emanates, was not a sensibly about music at all. The controversy has been about a performance art installation at the Barbican, one of UK capital’s premier arts centres:-  “Exhibit B” by Brett Bailey, a white liberal South African. The piece, purportedly a critique of colonialism and the human zoos of the 19th and 20th centuries featured a male black performer in a cage and a semi-naked black woman with a slave shackle around her neck, prompting  first a popular petition that criticised its “complicit racism; ” then violent protest on the opening night and headline news. In a turn of events that would have delighted the late black consciousness leader Steve Biko, who distrusted patronising white liberals just as much as their overtly right wing compatriots,anti racist campaigners succeeded in forcing the show’s closure.

Inevitably, these events prompt soul-searching. Is there racism in London’s African music seem too? At a concert, focusing on music of the Sahara held in the Barbican’s prestigious main concert hall, a couple of nights later and attended by an almost exclusively white audience the master of ceremonies introduced the performers by saying that it would have taken them  three months to reach the venue an on their camels. Certainly, when they arrived on stage and sat down cross-legged, it did look as though the promoter had instructed them to dress as though they had just got off camels. The MC further explained fatuously that the three electric guitarists we were about to hear would make an impact equivalent to guitarists from the Beatles, the Who and the Rolling Stones combined; all of which had this observer feeling it was a lucky thing the protesters who had broken up “Exhibit B” weren’t still around. It was a depressing experience, demonstrating that London’s art administrators have a lot of hard thinking to do after the “Exhibit B” debacle.  How on earth did we end up like this?

From the vantage point of London, Africa is not only physically distant. Culturally the picture most people seem to have is so grotesquely  distorted by layer upon layer of crass marketing, romanticism, neo-colonialism and sheer factual inaccuracy that they might as well be looking through the wrong end of a telescope. From an African jazz perspective, if they could turn the telescope ‘round and get a true picture, what would they see? Undoubtedly the towering figure of Franco - leader of the Congolese band OK Jazz, who dominated sub Saharan Africa’s airwaves for most of the second half of the last century - would feature prominently. And of course with such a powerful musical telescope there would be sound too. One of the first things one would hear, surely, would be the immortal anthem “Indépendance Cha Cha” to which, especially during Dr Nico’s still stunning electric guitar solo, one would see just about the entire continent dancing and being smitten  into delirium with the glories of Congolese jazz.

The reason this imagined truth telescope would surely alight on “Indépendance Cha Cha” is that it is the source of what remains to this day the single biggest distortion in people’s understanding of jazz from Africa. The history,  influence, and contemporary legacy of this song need to become  part of the core curriculum for the study of jazz everywhere. Wikipedia points out, correctly, that the song was the first homegrown pan African hit record, and certainly there is no electric guitarist south of the Sahara or north of the Lmpopo today whose playing isn’t influenced by Dr Nico. The song’s political legacy and long-term fallout are even more remarkable. It was written and recorded in early 1960 in Brussels by a group of musicians that had accompanied Congolese politicians the most prominent of whom was Patrice Lumumba,  and celebrated their success in negotiating a declaration of independence from the colonial power, Belgium. This was a huge factor in the song/s continent wide success. In what is now Zambia, for example, across newly independent Congo’s southern border, the song gave its name to an independence campaign that led eventually, four years later, to that country’s independence in October 1964 udder the campaign’s leader Kenneth Kaunda. In 1960 when the song became a hit, and when this process started, Zambia was part of The Federation, a short lived. British colonial construct that incorporated what are now Zambia, Zimbabwe and Malawi. At the time,, this was the only country that lay between apartheid South Africa and the newly liberated Congo. It does not take much imagination to understand why “Indépendance Cha Cha” remains totally unknown in South Africa. The ruling apartheid authorities suppressed it and all Congolese jazz for the very simple reason that they saw how serious a threat it was to their white supremacist regime. It is also highly likely that one of the reasons repression of jazz musicians in South Africa became severe from 1960 onwards and more so after Zambia’s independence in 1964 was that the band that recorded “Indépendance Cha Cha” was called African Jazz.

The effectiveness of the measures South Africa took against Congolese jazz is astonishing. For example, your columnist was privileged last year to spend a train journey with Tony Allen’s great contemporary Bra Louis Moholo-Moholo who left South Africa for exile in 1964 as part of the f the legendary Blue Notes. Five decades later, he still hadn’t heard, even of Franco, nor did he have any idea how much the difficulties he faced as a young jazz musician in South Africa may well have been due directly to the role that Jazz had played in independence movements further North. Even in contemporary Zambia, although it is widely known that the busiest street in the capital Lusaka bears the name Cha Cha Cha Road because of the independence campaign of that name its musical origins are largely forgotten.

The hostility towards and fear of African jazz engendered in South Africa’s apartheid rulers still leaves a gaping wound not only n that nation’s jazz scene but in the world’s understanding of jazz from Africa. Still Congolese jazz barely figure in the jazz scene in South Africa let alone in the country’s university curricula. This ignorance is so pervasive that even Wikipedia continues to omit Congolese jazz from its definition of African jazz.

Moreover, the global jazz establishment, the “world music” executives, academia and a great many musicians are still reluctant to do more than nibble at the edges of Africa- a little Ethio jazz here, some afrobeat there, a pinch of Cape jazz, some Malian “blues” but few dare venture into the continent’s vast interior.

In due course the power of the music itself will change all this. Encouragingly “Indépendance Cha Cha” has reissued twice in the last twelve months following “Le Grand Kallé: His Life, His Times,” a compilation, focusing on the leader of African Jazz, that was this site’s 2013 Album of the Year. A vinyl only double album “Souvenirs From The Congo,” by Grand Kalle & L'African Jazz is arguably an even better starting point from which to begin an acquaintance with “Indépendance Cha Cha” and African Jazz because it brings together a more representative selection of the tracks for which the band is best known and arranges them thematically across the four well thought out 12 inch sides. The downside is that the sleeve notes contradict the probably more accurate hardback booklet that accompanies last year’s release, and this critic, for one, finds the description of the group’s early work  as “naive” offensive. It is the equivalent of referring to Duke Ellington’s early works or Louis Armstrong’s sides with King Oliver as “naive.” The alternative digital only download double album “Independance Cha-Cha, Vol. 1 & 2 ” by Grand Kalle et l'African Jazz gets round this problem by having no sleeve notes at all. It offers a more generous selection of tracks from African Jazz’s key period with Dr Nico on electric guitar than either “Le Grand Kallé: His Life, His Times” or “Souvenirs From The Congo,” but entirely and bizarrely omits the biggest of all the band’s hits “African Jazz Mokili Mobimba” (better known as“Africa Mokili Mobimba”). “Le Grand Kallé: His Life, His Times”did include it but unforgivably and incorrectly re titled “Miwela-Miwela.” “Souvenirs From The Congo” by contrast not only includes the original hit version of what has become a standard but gives us a transcription of the lyrics, together with a succinct and 100% correct sleeve note:

“ “Africa Mokili Mobimba” which stands for “Africa all over the world”, was composed in 1961, in Brussels by one of the key members of African jazz: Charles ‘Dechaud’ Mwamba. The vocals came from Joseph Kabasele, Tabu Ley Rochereau and Roger Izedi.

It is partly sung in Lingala. The lyrics refer to various African nations and even America, where the music of L’African Jazz could be heard. The band also mentions several Congolese regions, cities and provinces like Mayombe, Boma and Kivu. The composition is a great example of the Pan African spirit of the band. It’s one of the best songs in their extensive oeuvre and was a huge hit across Africa. Former members of L’African Jazz, such as Tabu Ley Rochereau and Docteur Nico recorded own versions later.”

it is worth adding that the trumpeter on the track was the great Willy Kuntima nicknamed “Satchmo” and revered to this day for his unmistakable fulsome tone. The composer Dechaud was the band’s rhythm guitarist and elder brother of star soloist Dr Nico. A big reason for the track’s success was its extended playing time of more than five minutes afforded by the then new 45 rpm format (there being no 12 inch albums released in the Congo until the mid-70's)which gave more space to the guitar playing brothers. It is often said that the key influence on the way they played was that their combined sound was able to replicate the dance patterns, melodies and poly rhythms of the marimba/ African xylophone, all of which make the  record  an obvious Track of the Month. Time to put on those dancing shoes; celebrate Zambia’s Golden Jubilee; savour the irresistible optimism the era and marvel at African Jazz - one of the greatest, and certainly the most influential jazz bands ever to have emerged from Africa.

       Strong new cover versions of both “Indépendance Cha Cha” and “Africa Mokili Mobimba” feature on “Les Plus Classiques de la Musique Congolaise” wherein ex Zaiko, post jazz Congolese master guitarist Manuaku Pepe Fely looks back at the sounds that influenced him as a young man. This makes for absorbing listening, and one of the most unexpected and best African jazz guitar releases of the year, enhanced by guest appearances from the likes of ex OK Jazz vocalist Wuta Mayi plus trumpeter Kaber Kabasele and keyboard player  Ray Lema, both of whom their teeth with African Jazz alumnus Tabu Ley Rochereau.

      Now 81 years old, the sole remaining active former member of the incarnation of African Jazz with Dr Nico, the great Manu Dibango does much the same in his appearance on four tracks on the eponymous album “Dany Doriz Big Band,” were, like Manuaku, he to pays homage to musicians he idolised as a young man: Sidney Bechet and Johnny Hodges. This justly venerated old mater’s playing, particularly on his new cover of Duke Ellington’s “Morning Glory,” puts even McCoy Mrubata in the shade .Required listening for anyone that doubts the connection between the magnificent, seminal music of African Jazz and the African American tradition in jazz.

Going back south,“Duduvudu – The Gospel According to Dudu Pukwana” is a wonderful reminder of just how right the of apartheid authorities were to fear the power of jazz. A collaborative effort between North American, European and South African musicians together with former associates of the late exiled saxophonist is a treat featuring tight, memorising reworkings of compositions made famous by Pukwana such as “Mra.” There is superb musicianship by the likes of Ntshuks Bonga and the late Harry Becket, whose last session this was. Exemplary sleeve notes combined with moving testimony from contemporaries remind us what an important and influential player Pukwana was.

Quite why the aforementioned only surviving fellow Blue Note, Bra Louis Moholo- Moholo doesn’t feature on“Duduvudu” isn’t clear, but there has been the usual annual flurry of new releases and reissues from this most prolific recording artist. The underrated Ntshuks Bonga who makes such an impression on“Duduvudu”  can be heard to good effect on “For The Blue Notes” by the Louis Moholo-Moholo Unit and there is a lovely new cover version of Pukwana’s “Angel-Nomali” featuring Jason Yarde on his latest CD “4 Blokes - Louis Moholo Moholo Quartet.” The best of the new recordings, also on “4 Blokes,” is a passionate new version of  “Mark of Respect,”: a hymn like number in the same uniquely South African vein as Ibrahim’s “The Wedding” and Mongezi Feza’s “You think you know me” composed by Moholo with Pule and Gibo Pheto, two South African brothers who used to play piano and bass respectively with Bra Louis. Their replacements, double bassist John Edwards and especially Alexander Hawkins on piano, impress as again does Yardie but it is Bra Louis’ powerhouse drumming that steals the show. This is Moholo at his best: generating the kind of excitement that he used to experience when listening. to his early idol and influence Big Sid Catlett. On “Mark of Respect” it is as if he is actually singing to his musicians and audience  with the astonishing emotive power of his drums. The reissue of 1981's “Opened, But Hardly Touched ” recorded with fellow South African Harry Miller on double bass and  Peter Brotzmann from Germany on sax and flute as a double vinyl album is noteworthy too because Miller and Moholo were arguably the greatest drum /bass duo in all African jazz. This reissue will is well recorded and will  appeal to those with an improvised music bent  but the performance is not a patch on  Miller and Moholo’s mind blowing live set with Harry Becket, also recorded in Germany in the early 1980's, that was issued in 2011 as part of “Elton Dean's Ninesense Suite Becket/Miller/Moholo.”

It is worth pointing out that the three collaborators in Moholo’s strong quartet - Edwards, Hawkins and Yardie - are all Londoners: proof, as is Byron Wallen, that not everything about the UK's African jazz is bad. So too is the mouth-watering line up of African stars scheduled to appear shortly at this years London Jazz Festival which include Angelique Kidjo, Abdullah Ibrahim, a return visit by Botswana’s Bokani Dyer and a very rare opportunity to compare and contrast Tony Allen and Moholo-Moholo who  appear within the space of a few days of each other. It is nonetheless noteworthy that none of the British musicians referred to above, nor any of the eminent British jazz musicians that have appeared in the past with The Dedication Orchestra, Bra Louis’ big band, whose forthcoming show is the most keenly anticipated event at this year’s festival, have central African music in their repertoire. The key reason for this is the effect the apartheid authorities’ ban on Congolese jazz had on South African exile such as the Blue Notes, to whom the word “Dedication” refers in this context. Of the prominent exiles only Hugh Masekela incorporates substantial Congolese influence in his music. He didn’t begin doing so until his 1974 stint in the Congo’s capital, Kinshasa, where he was involved in the musical extravaganza that accompanied Mohamed Ali’s “Rumble in the Jungle” boxing fight. Masekela’s crucial encounters with the music of Franco and African Jazz alumnus Tabu Ley Rochereau therefore took place shortly after the period he worked to such great effect with Pukwana. The Blue Notes together with Abdullah Ibrahim, their associates and a large part of their Western jazz audience have been rather nonplussed by Masekela ever since, sometimes even denouncing the “afropop” element in his post 1974 work as non jazz when in fact it actually reflects the dominant strain of jazz from Africa. As pointed out in this column before, it should be remembered that when Bra Hugh chose his “Desert Island Discs” for the BBC, the only jazz he included from Africa was Franco. The best example of the Congolese flavour in Bra Hugh’s work is his barnstorming CD/DVD set “Live at Carnival City” with Dr Nico devotee Erik Paliani on guitar.

The apartheid authorities were right to single out Congolese jazz as the most potent musical threat they faced – as the reach of “Indépendance Cha Cha” demonstrates But, though the authorities probably didn’t realise when they suppressed that song in 1960, the elephant in the room was Franco.He still is. While Franco doesn’t feature on the song, the band that recorded it was not leader Kabasele’s usual African Jazz line-up but a specially assembled super -roup comprised of members of both African Jazz and Franco’s OK Jazz and thus designed to symbolise a collective desire for national unity.  The lead vocalist, for example, Vicky Longomba was OK Jazz’s biggest vocal star of the period.

The point is further illustrated by the fact that even in sub Saharan Africa’s most populous country, Nigeria, Franco’s popularity exceeded that of Fela for much of the latter’s career and right across sub-Saharan Africa, apart from South Africa and Ethiopia, his popularity and that of his almighty OK Jazz was unparalleled. from the early 1960's until his death in 1989. In fact, the continent’s love affair with Congolese jazz, although waning by then, persisted for several more years, thanks to Franco’s rivals such as Tabu Ley Rochereau, Mbilia Bel and protégés, such as Madilu System and Lutumba Simaro. The impact of Congolese jazz and Franco/OK Jazz in particular during the second half of the 20th century on Africa wasn’t merely the biggest phenomenon in music. It was the biggest cultural phenomenon of any sort. From a jazz perspective there are only two ways to look at Franco: one can argue that he is one of the most important jazz musicians of all,  or one can maintain, rather improbably, that African Jazz and OK Jazz had noting whatsoever to do with jazz. Franco’s statue and centrality are such that there can be no middle ground.

Although today’s Central African jazz is very much, Congo centric rather than the continent wide phenomenon it was in Franco’s day, this column will report next month, God willing, that 2014 has been a great year for that region’s jazz and will include a review of the continent’s biggest music star’s long-awaited tribute to Luambo Makiadi Franco: Koffi Olomide’s DVD “Koffi Chante Luambo - Live Concert.”

Note and further apology: While three months away from my desk were necessary and afforded an opportunity to refocus and get a sense of perspective on Africa and her jazz I apologise to readers who have been awaiting the promised discography of Youlou Mabiala which will now appear on this site in 2015.

October 2014

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An Apology, Verckys and The Verdict

Track of the Month:- “Kacha” from the album “ Le Verdict” by Prince Youlou Mabiala and T.P. OK Jazz withVerckys on alto sax (digital download only, Congo Brazzaville/ DR Congo)

Apologies to readers awaiting this site’s article about Youlou Mabiala and to those who would like to read about other matters. The Youlou Mabiala article and a discography are still under preparation.

As a taster of what is to come, the track of the month Kacha” is a lyrical collaboration between Youlou Mabiala (here featured as lead vocalist, band leader  and ,probably, composer) and another OK Jazz living legend, Verckys Kiamuangana (alto sax, leader of the horn section and producer) from their album “Le Verdict” which is the only one of the 19 recent Mabiala digital reissues that is not on the Sterns label. Poorly distributed outside central Africa on release in 1999 or 2000, this little-known recording is the last ever issued under the name T.P. OK Jazz. The use of this band name, although authorised by the late Franco’s family, was controversial at the time for the simple reason that althoughYoulou and Verckys had both been major figures in Franco’s famous band, the ensemble they fronted on “Le Verdict” simply wasn’t the band that Franco had led until his death in 1989. That band which initially thrived under Simaro’s leadership in the aftermath of Franco’s death, had had been reamed Bana Ok in 1994 following a dispute with Franco’s family. To make matters worse Youlou’s so-called .T.P. OK Jazz had already tarnished the band’s name by releasing at least two disappointing albums since 1994 that had been widely distributed. Conceivably, the title of the new album was an acknowledgement of the fact that the jury was out on Youlou and his rather dubious band. Miraculously, however, when he joined forces with Verckys they made a strong album, which ,arguably, was good enough to merit the Tout Puissant (almighty) OK Jazz imprint and provided a suitable way for that great name to leave the stage for the last time. The syrupy keyboards that, although intelligently played, had marred many 1990’s Youlou releases, were kept in check and the horn section was transformed by the addition of Verckys, one of Central Africa’s all time great sax players, and by  an expanded horn section featuring some excellent trombone.  Verckys’ playing and horn arrangements throughout “Le Verdict” are those of a master musician. He does nothing ostentatious or remotely flashy nor anything extraneous.Every ote is well crafted, heartfelt and unmistakable because expressed with a distinctively beautiful uncoloured, uncluttered gentle but lucid tone. It is almost as though he is singing with his sax, a seemingly effortless but fiendishly difficult thing to do, and the results are deeply touching. Youlou responds in kind with his unique plaintive voice subtly plumbing the depths of human emotion, notably on the tracks “Kimpala” about his beloved wife Mama Eleni (Franco’s daughter), and the topical closer “Adieu Pepe Kalle Yampania” in honour of another revered Central African vocalist then recently deceased. It’s an ebullient, confident and, at times, breathtakingly beautiful album, for example in the memorable  phrases Youolou and Verckys exchange on “Kacha.”

Interestingly, this wasn’t the first time Youlou and Verckys had pulled a rabbit out of the hat. Having first joined Franco in and what was then OK Jazz earlier in the 1960s, Youlou and Verckys made a remarkable series of singles in the late 1960’s under the name Verckys et son Ensemble. According to Graeme Ewens’ “Congo Colossus: Life and Legacy of Franco and OK Jazz” the OK Jazz musicians initially involved included vocalist Lola Checain, Simaro on rhythm guitar,  Celi Bitchou, who hailed from Chad, pn electric bass and Mose Se Fan Fan, who was about to join OK Jazz from Kwamy, Mujos and Brazzos’ Orchestre Révolution,  on lead guitar .. Although this rebellion seems to have irked Franco and failed in the sense that Verckys and the others quickly retuned to the fold; at least one of the tracks they recorded, “Okokoma Mokristo”   seems to have made an impression because it was reissued on the pioneering 1977 compilation “Musique Congolo-Zairoise: Merveilles Du Passé Vol. 3” (since reissued once more as a digital download album). Listening more than four decades after , these rebellious young musicians in the formative stage of becoming major artists, still have the power to thrill.  Verckys’s alto sax shone like never before and Youlou, who had barely been heard as a solo vocalist on recordings before, features prominently and proved himself to be the remarkable singer he has been known as ever since. In the absence of Franco, Fan Fan and Simaro’s guitars can also be heard to great effect as can Simaro’s burgeoning gift as a composer on “Na Koya Na Pokwa” and probably “Okokoma Mokristo” too.

The forthcoming article and discography will attempt to demonstrate that the right verdict on Youlou Mabiala’s career in music, most of which is sandwiched between these superlative sessions with Verckys,  is a Tout Puissant thumbs up, which is rather more than can be said of  the time it is taking to  put the article together…

July 2014

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The Poet and The Prince, Simaro and Mabiala:  living legends of T.P.OK Jazz

Part One – Simaro at 75

Track of the Month:- “Salim” from the album “Encore & Toujours” by Lutumba Simaro & Bana OK (DR Congo)

With “Encore & Toujours” (forever and always), subtitled “L’Icone de la Muique Conglaise” (Congolese music icon) the now 75-year-old Le Poète Lutumba Simaro surpasses all expectations. This is his first studio album since 2008 and his first since 2004 with Bana OK, formerly known as T.P.OK Jazz, with whom he has worked since 1961 as Franco’s Vice President for decades and, latterly as leader since Franco’s death in 1989. Happily, what impresses on “Encore & Toujours” is not the artist’s unimpeachable pedigree, but the supreme quality of his music: All Simaro’s remarkable talents are on display: his astonishing ear for vocalists; his master craftsmanship as composer and arranger; his ability to put a big band together band and elicit wonderful performances from his musicians; that crisp, unmistakably elegant rhythm guitar and ,above all, his uncanny ability to make us want to stand up and dance. “Encore & Toujours” demonstrates that class is permanent: and its title is literally true: as long as our species breathes, discerning music lovers will cherish Simaro’s irresistible jazz amalgam of poetry and dance.

Unusually for Simaro, the new release kicks off with a frenetic celebratory “generique.” Mainstream Congolese albums often start in this way: with an up-tempo, but usually f short, full on dance routine that is designed to grab the listener’s attention and provide an opportunity to demonstrate the latest dance moves. Simaro’s opener turns these conventions on their head in two ways. Firstly, entitled “Pot Pourri” the track is in fact a medley of old hits, giving his audience the opportunity not to demonstrate the very latest dance moves, but ones that they have been enjoying for generations. Secondly, at more than 17 minutes in length. the track is far from short and therein Simaro teaches us something important about old age. Certainly, it reminds this critic of long starlet balmy nights spent in rural Central Africa, where more often than not the elderly were the life and the soul of the party - raucous and joyful in a manner few Western pensioners can even imagine This surely, is what old age is meant to be like and demonstrates that the new incarnation of Bana OK is just as potent as its predecessors despite the fact that Simaro apart, the bulk of its illustrious members are deceased, or retired. The most obvious survivor from 2004, whenT.P.OK Jazz was renamed Bana OK , other than the leader, is the 52-year-old vocalist Shak Shakembo, who is featured prominently on “Pot Pourri” where he demonstrates that he has matured into one of the most thrilling jazz vocalists contemporary Africa.

“Salim”, the more mellow and characteristic second track, which is a current hit ,is Simaro’s most appealing composition since “Interpellation” (2001) and will surely come to be r regarded as a masterpiece to rank alongside the likes of his “Ebale ya Zaire” (1973), “Maya” (1984), “Testament ya Bowule” (1986) and “Eau Benite”(1990). It starts with a spoken introduction by Simaro himself who goes on to underpin the entire performance, with his eloquent guitar accompaniment for a lead vocal by an unfamiliar singer whose artistry is beautiful beyond words making “Salim”, an obvious track of the month.

Other fine tracks on this consistently good release include “Ngina Mawu” sung by Shakembo; “Okasal” sung by the same superb vocalist as “Salim” in duet with an exquisite new female vocalist in the mould of M'bilia Bel and “Bitshilux” with a spoken vocal that has one wondering if it is old Josky Kiambukuta plus a pleasing sebene. “Ravis” is an ensemble piece featuring multiple vocalists and a razor sharp sebene led by a guitar soloist, reminiscent of the late Gerry Dialungana who, like the vocalist on “Salim,” the new female vocalist a pianist and various horn players who appear on several tracks have one longing to know the personnel of the current Bana OK line-up, which is sadly unavailable at the time of going to press. There is no doubting the identity of guest vocalist Papa Wemba on the ravishing closing track “Examen d'Etat” – he is at his best, rounding off what will certainly be one of the most enduring albums of 2014.

For more information, Zephyrin Nkumu Assana Kirkia’s wonderful little book* “Lutumba Ndomanueno Simaro: Poète, philosophie, guitariste-accompognatur, auteur-compositeur et genie de la musique congolaise moderne” is highly recommended. In its Preface, distinguished anthropologist Professor Bob W. Wwhite emphasises how good Simaro is in live performance in Kinshasa with Bana OK, a view wholly endorsed by this site on the basis of the excellent 2003 DVD “Concert Live Bana OK LSC. Paris”, (Sofege Universell,  SUP 2003/03) , which although not filmed in Kinshasa is set in the midst of a Congolese audience and has since been re-edited, remastered and reissued in 2010 as “C'est La Fête!” by  Lutumba Simaro & Sam Mangwana. To see further quite extraordinary evidence of how much Simaro’s music means to his audience see the remarkable footage of his beautiful 1979 hit “Kadima” sung by Djo Mpoyi. This clip, available on YouTube and DVD, focuses on the vocalist and bandleader Franco, but towards the end shifts briefly to Simaro, who has the most self-effacing stage manner of any major music star, enabling the viewer to see how deeply moved he was by what his fans were doing which was to paste bank notes all overvocalist Mpoyi. Footage like this has one longing to know what Simaro’s famously poetic lyrics are about. This little book by a Montréal-based Congolese broadcaster and cultural commentator roots Simaro’s achievements in sub Saharan Africa's ancient oral tradition and emphasises his importance as not only as a poet , but as a thinker.

For Simaro, who was born and bred in Kinshasa and began his professional life in music with Micra Jazz in 1958, the decisive moment in his career occurred when his music came to the attention of Franco , who recruited him to the best band in Africa, OK Jazz,in 1961. According to Kirkia, Micra Jazz had featured saxophonist/composer Verckys Kiamwangana plus voalist/compsers Mulamba Mujos and Cogo-Brazzaville’s Michel Boyibanda all of whom went on to spend key periods of their careers with OK Jazz  but what drew Franco’s attention was Simaro’s post1959 work with Gerard Madiata’s group Congo Jazz with whom he had recorded "Simarocca", "Muana Etike" and "Lisolo ya ndaku " From that point on his career never faltered apart, perhaps, from when, at the very end of 1993, the late Franco’s family deprived the band of its name and instruments, which they owned, and persuaded its biggest single attraction,singer and composer Madilu System, to leave with a view to him setting up a new version of the band. Interestingly, Kirkia tells us that the idea of the original band continuing under Simaro with the new name Bana OK did not come not from Simaro. Rather, it was the superlative veteran vocalist and composer Josky Kiambukuta, affectionately and perhaps understandably known as Le Commandant De Bord who suggested this. The outcome was that T.P. OK Jazz survives to this day as Bana OK and Madilu’s putative new T.P. OK Jazz never got off the ground. Franco’s family did however briefly resuscitate the band name under the leadership of Le Prince Youlou Mabiala in the late 1990’s as will be recounted in Part Two of this article.

Throughout, the author emphasises the philosophical nature of Simaro’s thinking and notes that some of his song texts have been set works for baccalaureate exams in philosophy in Congo Brazzaville since the 1970’s. He earned the title “The Poet” in 1974 after the release of his celebrated, seminal song “Mabele” about the earth, a translation of which appears in Graeeame Ewen’s essential book “Congo Colossus: The Life and Legacy of Franco and OK Jazz.” Kirkia stresses the use of traditional proverbs and adages in Simaro’s work, a practice which he arguess has influenced many other composers.

As exemplars of Simaro’s poetry and thinking, four songs are singled out for detailed exposition. In brief, “Ebale ya. Zaire” which, like “Mabele” was sung by Sam Mangwana is a meditation on the mighty Congo River , which explores the theme of lost love and separation. Eleven years later, “Affaire Kitikwala” from 19 84’s “Maya,” widely regarded his best solo album, features Carlyto Lassa on lead vocal and is about life, love, morality and death, centring around the theme of Carpe Diem (seize the day.) Wise proverbial pronouncements such as:

“Chew bones while you have teeth”


“Remember, there is no beer in heaven”

which the song features are s particularly resonant now that Simaro is such a vivacious 75-year-old. Respect for the elders: is a cardinal principle in sub Saharan African thought and in the Congo especially where, according to the author, average life expectancy is a mere 47.

The subject matter of the 1998 song “Trahison” from the solo album of the same name is betrayal and humility. Poignantly, the beautiful rendition by vocalist Pepe Kalle turned out to be one of his last studio recordings. According to the lyrics, we are all equal in death: the earth never rejects a corpse and there is no rivalry in the graveyard. Likewise love knows no boundaries. The author informs that people respect Simaro because he has been true to his word and lived hambly. While Franco was alive he lived in a modest rented house in the traditional family compound. Nowadays, he has his own villa but it is still in the family compound. In this song, the poet advises that we should be wary of friendship rooted in drink and cigarettes because it will betray us and empty our pockets. Rather, we should take care to look after our health, which is also exactly what Simaro seems to have done over the years.

“Muana Ndeke” from the earlier 1989 album “Pepe Kalle Chante Le Poète Simaro” sung by Kalle and Carlyto features Papa Noël and Diblo Dibala on guitar and the great saxophonist Empopo "Deyesse" Loway. The same album launched the huge hit “Diarrhée Verbale” aka “Tumba Timba.” “Muana Ndeke” is about the desirability and difficulty of reconciliation after divorce.

One can only hope that in a future edition or at the invaluable blog to which he refers (www.mbokamosika.com), Kirkia will interpret “Salim, ” “Kadima” and other gems from Simaro’s repetoire. Anyone still doubting Simaro’s stature in Congolese music should view clips on YouTube of his 75th birthday concert in Kinshasa featuring guests of the calibre of Koffi Olomide, easily Africa’s biggest music star; Malage de Lugendo, an alumnus of both T.P. OK Jazz and Zaiko Langa Langa and Shak Shakembo all of which one hopes will appear in full on a DVD of the show in due course.

* Zephyrin Nkumu Assana Kirkia’s book is readily available from Amazon, where, oddly, it is listed without the author’s surname. i.e. the author’s name is stated, incorrectly, as Zephyrin Nkumu Assana. Amazon also shorten the book’s title to “Lutumba Ndomanueno Simaro.”

Part Two of this article “Youlou Mabiala – the trials, the triumphs, The Verdict” delayed from last month is under preparation.

June 2014

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Franco’s Prince, Youlou Mabiala – A Prologue

Track of the Month:– “Maka” from the album “Judoka” by Youlou Mabiala & Kamikaze Longisa (digital download only, Congo Brazzaville)

“Maka” is an appetiser for an article about Youlou Mabiala  that is soon-to-be published on this site. From his much loved 1983 “Judoka” album  backed his then three-year-old big band Kamikaze Longisa, “Maka”  was a hit on both sides of the Congo River and remains a perennial favourite. It  showcases the soulful singing for which Youlou is justly famous and  which caught the attention of Africa’s greatest musician – Luambo Makiadi Franco - when he hired Youlou as a teenager in the 1960s to join OK Jazz. By 1983, “Maka’s” composer, bandleader and arranger was one Africa’s biggest stars referred to by fans and Franco alike as  “Le Prince,” a title denoting both Youlou’s musical stature and the fact that as the husband of Franco’s daughters he was family. The song exemplifies the three-part structure often employed by Youlou to gradually seduce his audience to their feet with beautifully interlocked guitars executing each gear change,  as the rest of his dace band, and especially the horns skilfully build to an expertly executed and thrilling sebene.

The reissue of 19 of Youlou’s albums, containing much material that has unavailable for decades and with the promise of more to come, is already the largest and arguably most significant series of reissues by an African jazz artist since Fela Kuti’s Africa 70 albums were made available on CD for the first time in the late 1990s. A review article about these revelatory recordings will appear on this site shortly.

May 2014

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Bokani Dyer’s debut at The Vortex and the future of African jazz in London

By happy coincidence, pianist Bokani Dyer, two of whose award winning releases were just reviewed here, and who appears on Nomfundo’s “Kusile,” this site’s Track of the Month, made his London debut last week. An affable stage manner couldn’t quite conceal that in several respects his appearance at Dalston’s Vortex Jazz Club was momentous occasion.

It was momentous firstly because it marked one of the rare occasions that Londoners have had chance to see any of the younger generation of Southern Africa’s post apartheid jazz stars. The celebrated tenor saxophonist Soweto Kinch has played with Dyer in South Africa before* but the experience must have been a revelation to the other prominent British jazz musicians with whom he appeared - Chris Williams, alto,; Neil Charles, bass with drummer Seb Rochford - and to the regulars in the audience. It was momentous not only because it was remarkable that the event took place at all in London’s barely developed and oddly hidebound African jazz scene, but also because Bokani Dyer was self-evidently the best musician on the stand. It must, of course, have been a special moment for him too because, for all its flaws, London remains a global hub in music and to play here for the first time is a feather in any professional musician’s cap.

Bokani Dyer’s date at The Vortex was the culmination of a four nation European tour that marked the latest step in a life that began in 1986 when he was bon during that brief proud period in Botswana’s jazz history when its capital city, Gaborone played host to a community of exiled anti-apartheid South African jazz stars of the highest order including Jonas Gwangwa and Bra Hugh Masekela. The quality of Botswana’s own jazz has perhaps been rather obscured over the intervening years by the curious fact its best-known proponent ,Note Mokote, is a fictional character in the shape of Mme Ramotswe’s glamorous but fickle and generally inadequate former husband in Alexander McCall Smith’s much loved “The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” novels. In reality, Botswana has gifted us a number of notable jazz musicians such as John Selowane, who was Masekela’s guitarist for many years and plays in a manner halfway between that of African American jazz and DR Congo’s jazz genius Franco. There is also a notable bass player/composer by the name of Cittie; the late guitarist Duncan Senyatso and the distinctive female vocalist Punah. But Bokani Dyer’s musical genes and polished presentation appear to stem primarily from the South African side of the family: for his father is none other than Steve Dyer: saxophonist and producer of albums such as Oliver Mutukudzi essential “Tuku Music,” who has also put out a number of solo albums over the years. Most recently, his “Ubuntu Music” a pleasing, understated recording that grows on h listener with time, featuring Bokani at the piano, where, just as he did at The Vortex, he stole the show.

In fact, Bokani Dyer seems by design or good fortune to have chosen a near perfect moment in his career at which to launch himself in London  because, if his recordings are anything to go by, his playing has matured and developed to an astonishing degree over the last two or three years to the point, where he has established a level of proficiency, and good taste that prompts rare comparison. The two that spring to mind are Teddy Wilson’s late 1930’s sides with Billie Holiday and Moses Taiwa Molelekwa’s minuscule number of mind numbingly good last acoustic piano releases from 2000/ 2001 with the Brothers of Peace and Joanna McGregor. Bokani Dyer lays no claim to the stature or originality of either of these illustrious musical forebears but what he does have in common with both. apart from being in the latter half of his 20’s, is an astonishing level of fluidity in his playing born, one suspects, of years of frequent live performance with high-quality musicians for discerning audiences in a tough market place - because such are the hallmarks of Cape Town’s jazz scene where Dyer has plainly worked damn hard to make a name for himself and hone his skills. At a guess, this is also what sets him apart from the British stars with whom he appeared live who simply never have the opportunity to play live as frequently as prominent young musicians do in South Africa

 To some extent it may also have been that the British musicians, with the exception of Kinch,  weren’t sufficiently familiar with Southern African jazz idiom - entirely understandable given the music’s lack of exposure in London and the paucity of opportunity to play with musicians of the Dyer’s calibre and generation. On the other hand, the commonality in their jazz education and technical skills in is a major factor in why Dyer has been able to tour Europe and mesh with its younger musicians - who all, to a certain extent, speak in a recognisably globalized jazz tongue. In one way, this is plainly a positive development but in another it provokes mixed feelings because it is one of the main causes the rather conservative character of today’s global jazz scene. A fundamental problem is the tendency of established academics, often largely ignorant of African traditions in jazz and their significance, who unwittingly pass their ignorance on to their students. Globalization is all very well but we all need to be on our guard against globalizing ignorance

While it is much hoped that institutions like The Vortex will bring us more acts such as Dyer this ignorance also goes some way towards accounting for why more distinct African variants of jazz, remain so little understood and under appreciated. A current example in London’s African jazz scene is the superb Tanzanian saxophonist Rama, who plays in a manner that evokes the spirit of the great Empopo Deyesse and has held down a late night residency on Fridays and Saturdays at the West Green Tavern in Seven Sisters for months with his band African Jambo regularly playing to packed houses that contain barely a single one of the sort of jazz fan that frequent the supposedly avant-garde Vortex. While it is possible to hear good African jazz in London from expats** the capital still has a long way to go before it starts to make real sense of contemporary African jazz in its rich entirety. Fortunately, there is now a big enough African population that this will surely happen eventually just as is starting to occur on the city’s dacefloors thanks to Naija acts like D’banj and P Square whose mainstream success is beginning to break down long-standing musical and racial divides.

Encouragingly, Rama’s guitarist Jeannot Bel, who has made a couple of promising albums, is moving in a parallel direction in his work as a guitar teacher. He also directed the DVD “Congolese Rumba Guitar Technique” by Olivier Tshimanga , easily the most prominent younger jazz instrumentalist in Central Africa: a release that will delight the intrepid regardless of whether or not they play guitar.

Bokani Dyer’s wonderful and heartening debut may well be a harbinger of things to come, because if London’s African jazz scene could get itself together, this extraordinary melting pot of a city could produce some truly startling music that would eventually sweep aside the septuagenarian and octogenarian African stars European jazz fans tend to think of when minded of Africa and who, to this day, dominate African jazz programming at bigger venues such as the Southbank Centre and Barbican.

Anther promising sapling popping up in London of late is a new crossover recording by Yaba Funk who are basically a party band with an Afrobeat/ highife bent. Their new album “My Vote Dey Count” is graced by talented saxophonist Jason Yarde on fine, exuberant form who brings a taste of London’s finest jazz into an African/ context. Such recordings and appearances by Bokani Dyer and Rama still feel peripheral and are too fragmentary to constitute a coherent rebirth of the city’s African jazz scene following the demise and departure, of most of the South African exiles, who made such an impact on the jazz scene in the 1960’s, 70’s, 80’s and 90’s but one senses that as the scene develops anew and especially if it starts to influence global jazz in the way that it certainly has the potential to; moments such Bokani Dyer’s debut may come to be remembered as sparks that played a role in bringing about a sea change in the way London and the world view jazz from Africa and become roots of a more afrocentric, less divided, richer, more diverse type of global jazz.

* In the first published version of this article, I suggested incorrectly that this was the first time Soweto Kinch had performed with Bokani Dyer. I have corrected this error. thanks to a glowing, enlightening review of the same gig by Dan Bergsagel at London Jazz News. There is another equally positive review by Kevin Le Gendre at Jazzwise Magazine and a touching personal slant on the evening by Peter Bacon at Jazz Breakfast, who turns out to be Steve Dyer’s brother-in-law, and features a lovely photo of Bokani playing piano as a child.

** Established African jazz musicians in London include South Africa’s Claude Deppa (Brotherhood of Breath alumnus/trumpet) and Pinise Saul (vocalist who worked extensively with Dudu Pukwana and Lucky Ranku), Nigeria’s Dele Sosimi (pianist/composer; alumnus of Fela’s Egypt 80) Funmi Olawumi (vocalist/composer), Ghana’s Kari Bannerman (Osibisa alumnus/guitarist) DR Congo’s  Mose Fanfan (OK Jazz alumnus/guitarist/composer) and various alumni pf Uganda’s Afrigo.

May 2014

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South Africa’s 2014 jazz awards

Track of the Month:- “Kusile” from the album “Kusile” by Nomfundo (South Africa)

It could be argued that the jazz musicians who are the biggest  winners at this year’s Metro FM and SAMA (South African Music Awards) are not the wonderful newcomer Nomfundo whose “Kusile” won her Metro FM’s Urban Jazz Award or the gifted double bassist Shane Cooper , who’s “Oscillations” won this year’s coveted jazz SAMA, but rather pianist Bokani Dyer and saxophonist/flautist Buddy Wells, who play their hearts out on both albums. Looked at from this perspective, Nomfundo’s is perhaps the greater of the two award-winners because she seems to elicit better performances from both Dyer and Wells, due to the fact that the standard of competition on her album is higher than on Cooper’s which sounds for the most part  like a high grade jam session. Listen for example to the title track “Kusile” composed by Nomfundo’s key musical collaborator Mandisi Dyanhyis , who she describes as “my second ear and eye” in her sleeve note. The song provides a showcase not only Nomfundo’s lovely voice but also for Bokani Dyer , whose contributions right across the album make this one of his best recording sessions to date and Buddy Wells who steals the show with an angular and utterly South African flute solo plus superb sax on other tracks, notably on a cover version of Winston Mankunku’s “Yakal Nkomo”. Conversely, it could equally be argued that Cooper’s approach allows more space for the musicians to stretch out, especially on the slower standout track “Dead Letters” and on its  moving “Reprise” that also shows off his double bass to great advantage. Either way, both are fine releases and everyone involved is to be congratulated.

The strength of Metro FM’s selection this year extends to most of their shortlist. Having been criticised last year in the South African press for including too many singer/songwriters with questionable jazz credentials,the judges seem to have listened and have chosen albums that combine popular appeal with genuine jazz. Their full shortlist was as follows:

Swazi Dlamini’s gospel tinged jazz isn’t to everyone’s liking but she has a huge following and, one imagines, frequent airplay on Metro FM. She is blessed with a fine, powerful voice and at least one of her new tracks “Full Circle” which is about her relationship with her audience is effective in spite of  truly dreadful twinkly sound effects.

Indwe’s eponymous debut is more, in the tradition of Dr Philip Tabane and his Malombo Jazzmen, a link accentuated by the presence of ace Malombo percussionist Tabang Tabane on the recording. Other fine jazz musicians involved include saxophonist Khaya Mahlangu, keyboardist Nduduzo Makhathini and the newly SAMA nominated drummer. Sisa Sopazi The sleeve notes emphasise the quality of Indwe’s lyrics. A good example of her work is “Umqhagi”  which is about the need for wise leadership:

“ ‘The Rooster’ - Rise Up Africa! Leadership should not be arrogant, but should uplift the poor and less fortunate.”

Julius Schultz will be a new name to most to although his “Color Blind” is actually his second album. He is an electric guitarist who has achieved the difficult feat  of standing out from the crowd and has made a genuine fist of an attempt at starting to map out a genuinely South African style of jazz playing on his instrument. On the studio album, thatt forms part of his two disc set, he is supported by Hugh Masekela’s keyboardist Randal Skippers and the equally good young Zimbabwean drummer. Legan Breda. His compositions range from the kwai jazz of the title track and “Woza” to George Benson, like numbers to a delightfully tongue-in-cheek gospel track “Coming Soon” on which he displays refreshing,unusual honesty combined with real humour - rare traits in contemporary South African music which tends to take itself rather seriously where religion is concerned. This musical integrity also finds voice in a winning accompanying live DVD of much the same set, performed with The Justin Leigh Band at Johannesburg’s Blues Room. The inclusion of a live DVD is an excellent innovation and makes this package particularly good value for money. Most South African jazz DVDs are grandiose affairs filmed in swanky theatres with a glittering array of guests. Schultz’s live set by contrast, has a relaxed intimate feel enabling one to sense the relationship between the musicians and their audience. There is some remarkable call and response footage which  illustrates the strength of the bond between Schultz’s approach to guitar and his audience. The wonderful thing about these images of his audience singing and dancing is that it enables the rest of the world to see precisely what it is that is so special about South Africa’s jazz scene. African American and European jazz musicians largely lost touch with these aspects of the music more than half a century ago.

Zamajobe has a popular touch too and her new album once again displays her forte which is her uncanny ability to develop musical relationships with collaborators who are at the cutting edge. On this occasion it’s the notable. multi-instrumentalist and virtuoso drum programmer Vuyo Manyilke. However, the new album is nowhere near as good as her last effort. “Trail Blazer” which featured Mpumi  Dhlamini , who is surely the best South African jazz musician of his generation. However, the new album would have been stronger. had Zamajobe included the four new tracks that were released on her compilation “Journey 2003 – 2013.,”especially her utterly unique interpretation of of Mackay Davashe ‘s “Laku Shoni Langa,” and her tribute track entitled “Fela” both of which epitomise this maverick artist’s unusual, subtle transformational approach to music making.

By contrast, SAMA’s list of nominees seems rather limited in scope , with an emphasis on mainly acoustic instrumental jazz in a sort of internationalised hard bop/ improvised music from but one corner of the nation’s rich jazz scene. Certainly, the contest between SAMA’s nominees failed to ignite public interest. A poll conducted by South Africa’s JazzE magazine’s website garnered an under whelming total of nine votes only one of which was for the eventual winner. SAMA’s full list of nominations was:

Another thing Nomfundo and Shane Cooper’s albums certainly have in common is the high quality of kit drumming. Cooper’s Kevisan Naidoo is a busy, propulsive virtuoso who enjoys a long-standing telepathic musical relationship with the double bassist. Nomfundo’s Kevin Gibson   couldn’t be more different: his playing is sparse and he swings to the point of being melodic. This high standard of kit drumming extends to most of the nominees for both awards. Notably, SAMA’s shortlist included debut albums by two kit drummers: , both of whom deserve such acclaim as attested by the fact that between them they attracted the bulk of the votes on offer at Jazz E. Of these, Sisa Sopazi also plays on Indwe’s Metro FM nominated album discussed above. His “Images & Figures” demonstrates that he is the pick of the new drummers on an album much enhanced by the playing from master pianist Andile Yenana, and by Thembinkosi Mavimbela’s fine double bass.

Fellow debut drummer Tumi Mogorosi’s pianoless album “Project ELO” is a much more ambitious offering from its striking gold cover to Lwanda Gogwana like use of classical sounding wordless vocal chorus and shades of Louis Moholo-Moholo in his drumming. But while all this makes for a memorable debut ,Tumi Mogorosi doesn’t yet quite have the musicianship or chops to pull it off. He unquestionably has potential, but this debut reeks of pretence, and this listener found it hard work. His ambition, however, suggests that he has the drive to progress and come back with stronger releases in years to come. Redeeming features of the album include the trombone playing of Malcolm Jiyane and an exuberant final track “Gift of Three” on which this young group of musicians let their hair down to good effect.

Marcus Wyatt’s fine trumpet playing on “One Life in the Sun” accounts for his SAMA nomination but he has made better albums of the past, notably “Language 12.” As noted in the original review on this site the standout track on this latest offering is a l tribute to Moses Taiwa Molelekwa and Johnny Dyani.

Lovers of South African trumpet playing should also seek out Unathi’s “An intimate night with Unathi” justly nominated for the SAMA’s Live DVD of the Year which captures a memorable performance by trumpet soloist Pablo Seotlolla. Had this album also been released on CD, it might well have attracted further nominations because Unathi’s vocals and material on this release are at least as good as Nomfundo’s and she is a major star iof  the Kalawa Jazmee ilk. Highly recommended.

The absence of Lil’ Noise’s supremely good “Case Closed,” from both SAMA’s  and Metro FM’s shortlists is an inexplicable omission. The lack of nominations for Norman Chauke’s “JAZZ DIKAS’ no. 3” is puzzling too but perhaps this elease was too late for inclusion in the 2014 short lists.

On the other hand, high praise is in order for SAMA’s inclusion of the late Zim Ngqawana’s “Live At The Cape Town International Jazz Festival” in their shortlist marking the first time a posthumous live recording has been honoured in this way, in South Africa. All praise too, to the record label Sheer Sound for putting this release out which, it is hoped, will herald an avalanche of such material. Live recordings of this sort are a staple of the rest of the world’s jazz scene and South Africa’s broadcasters, jazz fans and impresarios must have countless such treasures in their vaults that music lovers would love to hear. This particular release is most definitely a a case in point: a veritable feast of excellent jazz that won. this site’s Southern African release of the year award in December. The DVD is particularly strong, affording an opportunity to see, among others, a young Shane Cooper at his best.

More broadly,SAMA and Metro FM are both spot on in showering awards, including Album of the Year, on Mafikizolo’s “Reunited” a rave review of which can be found on this site. Anyone still doubting Mafikizolo’s jazz credentials need look no further than the multi-award-winning track “Khona” featuring beautiful keyboards by the mysterious “MaPiano” and the celebrated duo’s delightful ability to casually suspenned musical time with their singing in a manner that has delighted dance floors right across sub Saharan Africa for well over a decade. The granting of a Lifetime Achievement Award by Metro FM to their record label Kalawa Jazmee’s Oskido is richly deserved.

The extent to which South Africa’s jazz scene has moved on in the 20 years since the first free elections were held in 1994 is extraordinary. Kwai jazz pioneers like Mafikizolo and Oskido are now long established members of the country’s musical firmament. These colossal changes in the jazz scene since the years of exiled musicians and apartheid are somehow exemplified in the credits on Nomfundo’s album in which she thanks her former  jazz lMasters supervisor  for sharing time and expertise during “halfprice sushi outings.” South Africa may have a very long way to go before economic apartheid is genuinely dismantled, but the way the jazz scene operates has developed at a rate of knots. Likewise it is to be hoped that it is only a matter of time before South Africa’s array of younger jazz stars achieve  global recognition. It is high time the wider world paid more attention and began enjoying what contemporary Africa has to offer in exactly the same globalized, open-minded way that Nomfundo and her former uni supvisor relish that sushi.

April 2014

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Time to eat hat: new releases from Seun Kuti & Egypt 80, Geydu Blay Ambolley, Jimmy Dludlu and Carmen Souza

Track of the Month:- “I love you girl” from “The Different Shades of Ambolley” by Geydu Blay Ambolley (Ghana)

Seun Kuti & Egypt 80’s “A Long Way to the Beginning” infuriates and delights in equal measure. Chief among the delights is . Egypt 80, one of the defining big bands in jazz, still under the leadership of Lekan Animashaun who has been developing and playing Afrobeat for a period spanning six decades and who has been in charge of the band since taking over from Tony Allen in the late 1970’s. The current band boasts the best horn section in contemporary Africa and retains its unique rhythm section still featuring Davi Obayendo’s tenor guitar and distinctive percussion, notably giant conga played by veteran Kola Onasanyaists and Wale Totiola’s trademark claves. Animashaun no longer blows baritone, but quietly directs s from behind the keyboards which he plays with impeccable taste. His carefully chosen successor in the key baritone position, Adekunle Adebiyi, is stupendously good and in live performance, his sound and solos are the most outstanding feature of the band. (Click here to read a review of a live show.)

On the downside, whilst the brass section still features Oyinade Adeniran on tenor and can be heard to good effect on the new recording, there is a notable lack of horn solos. Worse still,Seun Kuti’s self aggrandising rhetoric about this release marking the beginning of Afrobeat is open to ridicule and much of his political posturing comes across as suspect. The inclusion of snippets of rap, which sounded refreshing and relevant when Seun’s elder brother Femi started doing it two decades ago, now sounds faintly old-fashioned. It would  have been more i productive to include guest appearance by some of Nigeria’s younger star vocalist/composers.

Fortunately, the album is redeemed to a large extent by a vast improvement in the quality of Seun Kuti’s compositions. Whereas on his first two albums, the best tracks were by Animashaun and other band members, on “A Long Way to the Beginning”  Seun is the sole composer and comes good on at least three tracks. Given his propensity for profanity, his lyric to the opener “IMF” is perhaps rather predictable, but nevertheless effective, contain a kernel of truth and would undoubtedly have made his father smile. “Ohun Aiye” is a lyrical highlife piece rather than Afrobeat and includes a pleasing trumpet solo. Best of all, is the final track “Black Woman” which is a tender, thoughtful ode to the women of Africa, making not only for a genuinely beautiful song, but also forming a welcome and positive development in the subject matter of the music. In summary, for the first time with “A Long Way to the Beginning” Seun Kuti proves that he might just have it in him to front his father’s great band to good effect - he has made a worthwhile album which suggests that he he could perhaps in due course  make a thoroughly satisfying one.

It is fitting that what is reputedly Geydu-Blay Ambolley’s 26th album, “The Different Shades of Ambolley”, is being released in the very month that Wikipedia added  Ghana to its entry on African jazz because Ambolley is very much the elder statesman of the music, In a career stretched across five decades and included a stint in the Uhuru danceband which Tony Allen cited in his recent autobiography as a major influence, few of his achievements match that of the band he currently leads. Simply put, in the three years since he returned to Ghana after a lengthy sojourn in the United States, Ambolley has assembled one of the best jazz bands in Africa. Their first album “Sekunde” was this site’s West African album of the year for 2013 and, arguably, constituted the continent’s best newly minted African jazz of the year.

Not one to rest on his laurels, Ambolley has since improved his marvellous band consisting of Kuku Ansong (trumpet), Colonel Faat (tenor), Olu Segun (alto), Isaac Karikari  aka Young Amin (piano/ keyboards), Charles O Donkorunkel aka Kwesi Arko (bass), Peter Mensah (drums) and Shikome (congas) by replacing his previously rather rock orientated guitarist with a mellifluous exponent of highlife by the name of. Dominic Quachie.

Appropriately “The Different Shades of Ambolley” is his most diverse album since 2001’s “AfriKan Jaazz” (since reissued as “African Jazz”) which, coincidentally, was this site’s Album of the Year. The new set forms a relaxed understated album , encompassing an extended homage to Fela &Egypt 80 in the first three tracks; a largely instrumental ballad featuring an extended sax solo by Ambolley himself (“Ambolley Special”),  a sort of credo to a reggae beat (“It doesn’t matter”) alongside several tracks in Ambolley's more usual and inimitable style. There are guest appearances from the hip life fraternity that are largely successful too. Best of all is the new composition “I love you girl” which sounds at the start like it might be a syrupy love song, but develops into a beautiful amalgam of highlife, hip life and jazz while in the lyrics, the subject matter subtly shifts from love for a woman to love for everything the composer holds dear: the tradition, wisdom and culture of Ghana , together with the necessity for honesty.

Such contrasting elements could easily have resulted in a scrappy, ill focused album, but all is held together by the the coherence of the band and the skill with which Ambolley utilises his own gifts as composer, percussionist, saxophonist and, above all, vocalist . His singing has an uncanny and seemingly effortless ability not only to convey meaning and emotion but to switch f back and forth from being a solo like frontline improviser and the bedrock of the rhythm section. This, ultimately, is why he is considered such an important precursor of rap and hip life. If one were to strip away all instrumentation and have an album consisting of Ambolley’s vocals alone, this would still be a beautiful record. In contrast with Seun Kuti, Ambolley is judicious in giving and creating space for all his musicians to shine as well, enabling each ample time to demonstrate their ability. In so doing,Ambolley’s new offering becomes both a fine jazz album shot through with musicianship that repays repeated, attentive listening, and an album that will go down well at a good party - a winning combination that is close to the essence of the best traditions in African jazz.

The status of Mozambican jazz guitarist, singer and composer Jimmy Dludlu in South Africa is akin to that of Ambolley in Ghana. In the minds of the majority of local jazz lovers, he is right up there with the likes of Hugh Masekela. However, also like Ambolley, he is much less well-known outside his own region. The advent of “Live” (two CD set),  his first concert recording, is a welcome development affording us the opportunity to hear Dludlu and his C-Base Collective in an extended workout in front of an enthusiastic Johannesburg audience. The musicianship is of the highest order throughout, including a good three-piece horn section, the superb John Hassan on percussion and the excellent bass player Lucas Khumalo. As one might expect, the album has some strong tracks, notably “F Town, Groove” which is a triumph for all concerned and showcases Dludlu's ability to weave Congolese influence into a southern African context. Having said that, very few of these interpretations add much to the original studio versions and Dludlu’s tendency to whoop like a Hollywood red Indian at every opportunity, while perhaps appropriate in live performance is rather tiresome in a recording. Dludlu would do well to listen to Ambolley’s use of his habitual cry of “yeahpah” which is more effective and appealing because it is always woven into the fabric of the music.

That the failure of this site to encompass jazz from North Africa and islands such as Madagascar and Cabo Verde is a shortcoming is graphically illustrated by Carmen Souza’s wondrous new DVD/CD set “Live at Lagny Jazz Festival” This stunning release is every bit as good as the strong new albums by Angelique Kidjo and Tutu Puoane reviewed last month. Just watch and listen, for example, to her playful, acrobatic vocals on “Donna Lee” which is also a tour de force for her superlative band consisting of co-composer/ long term collaborator and star bassist Theo Pascal, London-based pianist Ben Burrell and drummer Elias Kacomanolis whom Souza describes as part Portuguese, part Greek and part Mozambican. Souza’s own musicianship, on keyboards, guitar and percussion, is engaging too,  but it is her singing in Cabo Verdian/ Portuguese Creole and her life affirming stage manner that steal the show. On the evidence of this set, she is a chanteuse/ entertainer of the first order and a seriously good jazz musician with a top-flight band.

If anyone had told this critic a month ago that amid such a fine clutch of new releases.by some of the continent’s top stars he would single out a release from a Lisbon born Cabo Verdian as the best, he would have eaten his hat to prove them wrong. But Carmen Souza really is that good and cannot be recommended too highly. “Live at Lagny Jazz Festival”  is a spellbinding, exceptional release and , on this evidence, Carmen Souza emerges as one of the most exciting talents in contemporary African jazz. “Africa,” she tells her audience when encouraging them to sing along to her song of the same name, “is about attitude and energy.” Carmen Souza and her musicians are most certainly a case in point.

Choosing a track of the month has been especially difficult because her “Donna Lee” and Geydu Blay Ambolley’s “I love you girl” are equally good and both deserve to be widely heard. The Ghanaian track has been chosen in to celebrate the inclusion of Ghana in Wikipedia’s entry for African jazz, marking the first time that a West African nation is being honoured in this way. This is an important achievement because, as argued in this site in 2010 (click here to see the article), Wikipedia’s entry for African jazz is a barometer of opinion in the jazz establishment. Their addition of first Ethiopia and now Ghana as sources of African jazz presages a long overdue recognition of African jazz as a pan African phenomenon. This in turn will herald a paradigm shift in global thinking about jazz . the real centre of which, as argued in 2010 with reference to Fela and other musicians of his calibre, is Africa, rather than the United States. As the decade progresses, it is to be expected that a great multitude of critics and scholars will find themselves eating their hats over this very point..

March 2014

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Battle of the Divas: Angelique Kidjo and Tutu Puoane go head-to-head

Track of the Month:-: “Time's On Our Side” from the album “Live at De Roma” by Bert Joris & Tutu Puoane (Belgium/  South Africa)

Within the space of a few weeks, two of Africa’s best loved contemporary jazz divas Angelique Kidjo and Tutu Puoane have released albums of exceptional quality.

 Kidjo is such a big star that the jazz content of her work is sometimes overlooked. Like Miriam Makeba,who she always cites as a role model and influence, Kidjo simply ignores and, arguably, transcends boundaries of genre. Certainly, in terms of commercial success Kidjo’s achievements parallel those of Makeba.

Likewise, just as Makeba worked with top flight jazz musicians such as Hugh Masekela and Dizzy Gilespie, so does Kidjo. The key contributor to her new album “Eve” is US based guitarist Lionel Loueke who, like Kidjo, hails from Benin and demonstrates as he did on her last studio album “Õÿö” that he performs superbly with her. His intelligent, understated contributions are idiomatic in what is essentially a set of West African folk songs as are the delightfully uninhibited backing vocals by women pf Benin recorded in situ during Kidjo’s travels.. Her supremely powerful, instantly recognisable voice is ideally suited to this material too as is her obvious sincerity. To top this off , she employs an utterly contemporary  hip swivelling jaz rhythm section consisting of  Steve Jordan on drums and Christian McBride on bass. Such a rich, complex combination of mouthwatering ingredients could well have resulted in a recording that was disjointed or over ambitious. It is very much to Kidjo’s credit, and that of her producer Patrick Dillett, that “Eve” is a coherent album that repays repeated listening. This is Kidjo at her stunning best. She sounds relaxed and much less frenetic than on her overrated live album “Spirit Rising” where she often sounded like a motorist determined to impress by keeping her foot to the floor. On “Eve,” she seems more at ease with herself, helped perhaps by the presence of the gifted Loueke who sounds consistently laid-back when collaborating with Kidjo. Listen for example to their reggae/Congolese rumba workout on “Kamoushou.” Unquestionably “Eve” will prove one of the best West African jazz releasess of 2014: and is warmly recommended.

Tutu Puoane's new album will not be heard in  the swanky nightclubs to which Kidjo’s recording is so ideally suited. Her new set is an extravagant live acoustic recording, fronted by trumpeter Bert Joris and backed by the Royal Flemish Philharmonic, conducted by Martyn Brabins. The key instrumentalists however on “Live at De Roma” are Puoane’s regular small band made up of her husband and pianist Ewout Pierreeux, superlative double bassist Nicholas Thys and drummer Martijn Vink who by now all share a seemingly telepathic  musical connection and constitute one of the best acoustic trios in contemporary jazz.

Thankfully Joris has had the wisdom to construct his arrangements and compositions around this fine trio and the conductor ensures that the orchestra follows their beat rather than his or that of a metronome. The result is a big band that genuinely swings and provides a showcase in which both the trumpet solos and Puoane can shine. Instrumentally the album falls roughly midway between the sound of Gil Evans big band with Miles Davis on “Miles Ahead” and the Congolese pianist Ray Lema’s excellent 2012 live album with Jazz Symphonica de São Paulo conducted by João Mauricio Galindo, which may well be an influence on “Live at De Roma.”

The album starts strongly with new arrangements of Puoane and Pierreeux two best loved collaborations: “Between Us.” and “Mpho’s Song” leading us into some of the trumpeter’s own compositions and culminating in a piece without Puoane. But although this is essentially a Bert Joris album, it is Tutu Puoane that steals the show. While her voice may not be quite as instantly recognisable as Kidjo’s, it is at least as powerful  and, fascinatingly, her technique is completely different. Whilst Kidjo’s default mode of singing seems to involve maximum pressure on the gas pedal, Puoane delights in twists and turns moving up and down the vocal gearbox and occasionally into dazzling trills made all the more compelling by the deft subtleties with which they are surrounded. The overall effect is mesmerising and makes for a very fine album, perhaps, her best to date.

How can one compare these great African jazz divas of our era? We are blessed to have them both, but is one greater than the other? Fortunately, Tutu Puoane has a one word answer to all such questions. On the gorgeous Bert Joris composition "Time’s On Our Side" she sings the word “free” twice. The second time she sings it , her voice seems to explode like a balloon that has burst and darts around the room as the air rushes out. It's an astonishing feat of vocal dexterity which makes this listener’s spine tingle with delight at its breathtaking beauty. Angelique Kidjo is one of the all-time greats and has made a wonderful new landmark recording. Tutu Puoane, on the other hand, has one scratching one's head, rather as Ferre Gola does among the current crop of African male jazz singers, and has one wondering if there has ever been anyone this good? “Live at De Roma” hints that Tutu Puoane is possessed of the rarest quality  a creative artist can have. For the first time in many years South African jazz has delivered a musician that evokes comparison with the likes of Kippie Moeketsi and Moses Taiwa Molelekwa. At her best, Tutu Puoane has a touch of genius about her.

February 2014

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Abdullah Ibrahim’s place in jazz history & a review of “Keeping Time 1964 -1974: The Photographs and Cape Town Jazz Recordings of Ian Bruce Huntley” edited by Chris Albertyn

Track of the Month: - “Rhandzani vanhu” by Norman Chauke from his album “Xibelani Swings Jazz ‘JAZZ DIKAS’ no. 3” (South Africa)

In Gary Giddins’ and Scott DeVeaux’s “Jazz,” widely regarded as one of the most authoritative and definitive surveys of the genre ever written, there is no mention of the South African pianist/composer/arranger Abdullah Ibrahim. Nor is there mention of any other African jazz musician. In Giddins’ and DeVeaux’s world view,Africa exists, if at all, simply as a source of slaves who happened to bring with them some musical practices and ideas such as call and response and polyrhythm that went in the melting pot from which the great African American jazz tradition derives. In fairness, their lack of regard for jazz musicians from Africa extends to the rest of the world too. Europe, for example, barely exists either, apart from Django Reinhardt who, in their account, arrives on the US jazz scene like a creature from outer space. Indeed, a visitor from another world, if asked to guess at the geography of  planet earth solely on basis of Giddins’ and DeVeaux’s book would almost certainly sketch a map of the globe that has very little on it, apart from the USA. The sad thing about this world view, which is deeply embedded in mainstream thinking about jazz, is not only that it chimes with the sort of American foreign policy that the rest of the world dislikes but that it belittles the significance of African American jazz which, ironically,  is precisely that it is the USA’s most influential cultural contribution to the rest of the world.

Fortunately, for the most part, the musicians who pioneered this magnificent music didn’t share the outlook of Messrs. Giddins and DeVeaux. Figures such as Louis Armstrong, John Coltrane and Duke Ellington took a lively and intelligent interest in Africa and were eager to hear and learn about her music. When a more balanced historical narrative of jazz is developed, revisionists will undoubtedly single out Duke Ellington’s encounter with Abdullah Ibrahim, then known as Dollar Brand, as a key moment in the globalisation of jazz. The music that captivated Ellington when he heard Ibrahim and fellow South Africans Johnny Gertze (bass) and Makaya Ntshoko (drums), as reflected in the 1963 album “Duke Ellington presents the Dollar Brand Trio”, could not have existed without the influence of African American jazz, notably both Ellington’s own and that of Thelonious Monk. But that isn’t what intrigued Ellington – by the early 1960's, there were pianists world over that he and Monk had influenced - the spark that ignited Ellington’s interest was the element in the trio’s music that he had not heard before. The supremely gifted young pianist Moses Taiwa Molelekwa, in an interview filmed in the mid 1990’s and recently posted on YouTube, put his finger on it, when discussing the pianists who had influenced him most - saying, as a compliment -  that Ibrahim’s  playing sounded like that of his late grandfather. Ibrahim’s music is deeply steeped in Southern African jazz traditions and especially in the marabi piano style. The significant thing about Ibrahim is that he is one of the main conduits through which this Southern African style of playing jazz reach the wider world. It is arguable that any number of South African jazz pianists, such as Molelekwa’s grandfather, could and would have made a similar impression on Ellington - Ibrahim just happened to be the right person in the right place at the right time.

This is not to say that Ibrahim isn’t a great musician in his own right because he plainly is. His greatest recordings, certainly in the minds of his African audience, are those made back in South Africa in the first half of the 1970’s, such as “Dollar Brand + 3” (1971); “African Herb/Soweto” (1975) and, of course, “Mannenberg – Is Where it’s Happening” (1974) about which Garth Chivers and Tom Jasiukowicz justly wrote in their "History of Contemporary Music of South Africa - Part One:":

“If there is a quintessential South African sound this piece is the finest example.”

Ibrahim’s 1970’s sojourn in Africa inspired his greatest playing - for example on his unforgettable “African Sun” whose motif has become part of the vocabulary of South African jazz piano almost as much as marabi itself - instantly conjuring up a feeling of South Africaness. But, arguably even more importantly, the same recordings served to introduce to the wider world a gamut of South African jazz giants, The personnel, he worked with reads like a Who’s Who of 1970’s South African jazz featuring a host of the country’s best ever saxophonists including Kippie Moeketsi, Duku Makasi, Barney Rachebane, Basil ‘Maanneneburg’ Coetzee, Morris  Goldberg,  Robbie Jansen, etc; bass players Sipho Gumede and Victor Ntoni, trumpeter Dennis Mpale, etc, all of whom were barely known outside the country and who were rarely afforded the opportunity to make commercial recordings at the time. In short, Abdullah Ibrahim has made an incalculable contribution to the promotion of South African jazz worldwide.

It is also ironic, therefore, that Ibrahim is not much liked by  jazz musicians in South Africa, many of whom resent his success and question his reputation, often stating, with some justification, that the style for which he is famous is not his style but is rather a Southern African style. Matters have not been helped by the fact that in his post apartheid career, he has largely shunned South African musicians in contrast with, say, Hugh Masekela who although equally resented for his success, has given numerous younger South Africans their first international exposure.

In addition, as a general rule, South African jazz lovers have not warmed to much of the music. Ibrahim has made since the 1970’s. Arguably, and certainly in the eyes of many South Africans, he has become a purveyor of a shallow romanticism about Africa that panders to Western notions of what outsiders would like to believe. Africa is like. - an approach that has led to a vast number of commercial but aesthetically questionable recordings.

His most recent effort. “Mukashi; once upon a time,”. has its moments. One can still hear what a wonderfully gifted and Ellington-esque arranger he is on tracks such as “Mississippi” featuring cello plucked beautifully like a double bass and a  sublime soprano solo by the front rank American saxophonist Clevave Guyton.  His piano playing is superb too at times, notably on the solo piece “Root” which brings out the uniquely Southern African elements in his music that had Duke prick up his ears all those years ago. Unfortunately however the bulk of the album is less convincing. As on many recordings he has made with non-African musicians, the problem on “Mukashi” is that Ibrahim meanders and sounds unstimulated.

Those who hanker for something more like his classic 1970’s albums and the many great musicians he worked with at the time will be intrigued by “Keeping Time 1964 -1974: The Photographs and Cape Town Jazz Recordings of Ian Bruce Huntley” edited by Chris Albertyn which provides a tantalising glimpse of that period.

In a nutshell, Huntley was a jazz enthusiast who befriended numerous musicians , took photographs of them and sometimes recorded their performances..His beautifully reproduced photos, many of which are in colour, that form the bulk of the book, make a worthwhile addition to the documentation of the period, but, as Jonathan Eato points out in his meticulously researched, well thought out and well-written accompanying essay, there already been several books of high-grade jazz photos from the period. What is fascinating about the book is its documentation of more than 50 hours of previously unreleased live recordings he made.

This unique archive seems, not unreasonably, to reflect Huntley’s musical tastes. So for example, he made numerous recordings of Winston Mankunku,Tete Mbambisa and the Schilder family, all very fine musicians, but none of Zacks Nkosi, Malombo Jazzmen and there is no sax jive artist or female performer of any sort - a curious omission from a country that has gifted us so many  jazz divas. The selection of material may well also have been constrained by the fraught racial and sexual politics of the time. It may well have been impossible in practical terms, because of apartheid, for Huntley to record, photograph or even attend such performances. It is likely that, simply in order to stay in business, the venues he frequented trod a fine line with the authorities about what acts they could and could not present. It may also be that some artists are omitted because they didn’t want to be recorded. Nevertheless, to a large extent , Huntley’s selection of artists mirrors the relatively conservative sensibilities and nature of the Cape jazz scene, which has long been the most US centric in Africa.

While the existence of these recordings and their documentation in the book are simply wonderful, their dissemination, free of charge, is controversial. Jazz lovers fall roughly into two schools of thought about this. One school of thought can best be summarised in the words of South African jazz giant Chris McGregor’s widow Maxine and his surviving brother Tony, who wrote on the back of the excellent previously unreleased 2012 album “Sea Breezes: solo piano – Live in Durban 1987”:

“Unauthorised duplication is very unfriendly and a violation of all sorts of laws – please don’t do it.”

The other school of thought is summarised with commendable honesty and candour by Chris Albertyn, in his forward to “Keeping Time:”

“In making Ian’s audio recording is available for free download, Ian and the four of us at Electric Jive  blog are doing this to honour the musicians, rediscover, preserve and promote a previously inaccessible and important musical heritage. To the musicians whose recordings are being shared in the public domain, if you are offended in any way, we ask forgiveness and solicit your understanding. In keeping with Ian’s original purpose, this process is a non-profit voluntary labour of love.”

It is instructive that the McGregors and Jonathan Eato are in agreement that the right and proper relationship between people who make jazz and people who listen to it is one characterised by the spirit of friendship. Likewise, surely, this is the spirit in which the controversy about file sharing needs to be resolved. The problem with the manner in which in Huntley’s archive has been made available online is not so much that one of the two parties (those in favour of file sharing and those against) is, or might be in the wrong. The problem is that, as things stand, the many music lovers who don’t practice file sharing and feel unable to do so because of their convictions, have no means of hearing the music. The way forward, surely, is for Mr Huntley and the good people at Electric Jive to sit down with all the relevant stakeholders, especially the surviving musicians and legitimate heirs/representatives of those who are sadly no longer with us and find a way of making this archive available to everyone in a manner that is fair and financially agreeable to all and consistent with Huntley’s and Electric Jive’s admirable not-for-profit approach.

Of course, the issue about file sharing extends far beyond African jazz and falls way outside the competence of this site. It is worth pointing out, however, that in the context of sub Saharan Africa, the dilemma has an added dimension that needs to be taken into account for a satisfactory solution to be found. The importance of family ties in African culture cannot be overstated and lies behind the way society is organised, for example, in the extended family and also in widespread spiritual beliefs and practices concerning the spirits of the ancestors. Respect for one’s family and ancestors is a fundamental principle that needs to be taken fully into account in any truly African solution to the issue of file sharing.

This importance of family is sometimes and wholly appropriately reflected in the way African recordings are released and reissued. South African examples of this include compilations of recordings by Dennis Mpale and Zacks Nkosi which feature musical tributes by their descendants. Another example is a recent Congolese DVD about the wonderful and important band Bella Bella that sported pictures of the musicians’ widows on the cover. In both cases, such releases show that in an African context, such family connections can be just as important to the proper appreciation of the music as the sort of information which music lovers in the Western world look to find in a conventional discography. Likewise, solving problems in Africa in a meaningful way necessitates involving and respecting families.

In this instance, Jonathan Eato rightly argues that these particular recordings have a very special place in the history of South African jazz. Citing Denis-Constant Martin and Gwen Ansell, both genuine experts in the field, he argues that after the destruction of Johannesburg’s Sophiatown community by the apartheid authorities, Cape Town’s District Six became the hub of the country’s jazz community and that the strength of its jazz scene persisted for several more years, even after its people were also forcibly removed. This is much the same period covered by Huntley’s archive. Given the paucity of studio recordings from the era, Huntley’s archive is a major part of South Africa’s heritage and cultural ancestry.

Consolation for those of us who feel unable to practice file sharing, is to be found in a good crop of recent releases from South Africa.Two recent recordings from Cape Town illustrate contrasting ways in which the city’s cosmopolitanism and international outlook can play out. On the one hand, Shane Cooper’s “Oscillations” features world-class musicians playing world-class jazz. There is much to admire in Cooper, who is a genuinely front rank double bassist and in the playing of the drummer on the album, Kevisan Naidoo , who is quite simply one of the best in Africa. Their playing is complemented by that of the fine young pianist Bokani Dyer, saxophonist Buddy Wells and guitarist Reza Khota who, to his credit, is the standout performer on the release. The music this ensemble make resonate strongly with African American traditions - they would garner praise in any serious jazz venue worldwide, but someone who had never heard their music before would have little chance of guessing where the music hails from. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing - in a globalised world, why should good music sound like it comes from one place rather than another? It could even be argued perhaps that  jazz should become a universal musical language in which its place of origin is irrelevant.

The other fine release from Cape Town takes the exact opposite approach. “Musical Democracy” which is volume 4 in the long-running, definitive Cape Jazz Series put together by Patrick Lee Thorpe, consists of new recordings by the Cape Jazz Band. While the relatively close affinity between Cape jazz and African American jazz means that the music is stylistically less adventurous than the forms of jazz that exist further north, this does not limit the quality or distinctiveness of jazz from Cape Town. On the contrary, the city has produced world-class jazz performers for more than half a century and the stylistic limitations of the musical forms that pertain in Cape Town has meant that her greatest musicians have had to learn to achieve distinction not through stylistic adventure and innovation, but through the more challenging route of subtlety. This is where the lasting appeal of Cape Jazz lies - in its phrasing and incorporation of local flavours such as goema, that make it instantly recognisable. Like the region’s fine wines, Cape jazz exudes sophistication and popular appeal. From this perspective, Cape Jazz Band is the equivalent of a Cape wine for the connoisseur. Highlights of the album include Errol Dyers’ guitar playing, especially on the opening track - a sound that immediately conjures up the notion of Cape Town. The penultimate track, with heartfelt, weathered vocals by Stephen Erasmus, expressing his love of the city brings out the best in all the players, notably Tony Cedras , whose plaintive trumpet expresses the longing he must feel for his hometown when, in his usual adopted city of New York, where he has made a name for himself playing with artists such as Paul Simon and Henry Threadgill. Jack Momple’s drumming, which is the thread that runs through the whole album has a swinging Cape lilt to it and everyone who plays on the record responds in kind. On the last track, the new big star of Cape jazz - pianist, composer and multi-instrumentalist Kyle Sheppard puts in a sparkling performance that fully justifies his reputation.

Better still is Norman Chauke’s exceptional new album “Xibelani Swings Jazz ‘JAZZ DIKAS’ no. 3” which is easily the pick of recent releases from South Africa. Listen for example to his solo piano and vocal composition “Vat Mei Kop Toe.” How long is it since Abdullah Ibrahim did anything this good? Jeph Nomvete’s sax playing is lovely too, for example on “Hammansjazzkraal Blues.” Steve Mabona (electric & double bass) and Jerry Dibakoane (drums) are superb throughout, particularly on “Rhandzani vanhu” making it an obvious choice for 2014’s first Track of the Month, but make no mistake, “JAZZ DIKAS no. 3” is an album that merits being heard in full.

January 2014

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